Children on the Frontline: The Escape – an extraordinary film that goes beyond the “bang bang” of news

After five years of news reports tied to fighting in Syria, David Butcher applauds a family-focused documentary

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You could be forgiven for not rushing to see Marcel Mettelsiefen’s latest documentary. It sounds on the face of it like the kind of tough, harrowing TV many of us know we really ought to watch but, well, it’s easy not to get round to.

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Make the effort, because it’s an extraordinary film. Called Children on the Frontline: the Escape (tonight at 10pm on Channel 4), the documentary follows the fortunes of a single Syrian family as their world in Aleppo crumbles and they go in search of a better life in Europe.

We’ve been watching news reports of the Syrian war for five years – the fighting, the ebb and flow of territory, the devastation, the hollowing out of a nation. This feels different because it’s not a film about fighting. Mettelsiefen’s previous film about the same family in 2013 won a string of awards including two Baftas, an Emmy and the Prix d’Italia, partly because it made what could have been a gruelling tale an unexpected joy to watch.

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What makes the story itself special? In one sense, nothing. Hala, Abu Ali and their four children live like any number of Syrian families: amid shattered housing blocks, rubble and government bombardment. The children have no schooling other than what eldest daughter Helen can teach the youngsters. Fun is throwing bits of rubble at a basketball hoop. But in the face of the blows that rain down on them, the children remain sweet, funny and tough.

Their father is the local rebel leader, commanding a unit of the Free Syria Army. In 2014, Isis flooded the area and changed the balance of power. One night they abducted Abu Ali from his HQ. His family has not seen him since. Hala and the children are on their own.

Eldest daughter Helen is philosophical: “I’m not scared of anything any more,” she tells the camera. “There’s no need to be scared of anything because there’s nothing left in our lives.” They decide to leave Aleppo. On the eve of their departure, five-year-old Sara draws a simple sketch on a notepad. Why? “So Dad sees it and comes to us in Germany,” she explains. As they drive away, one of the girls says simply: “We love you, Syria. Forgive us.”

This is a story of a kind news bulletins rarely deliver. Mettelsiefen himself believes that may be because of the demand for what he calls “bang bang”, the need for explosions to justify a slot on a news bulletin. “A lot of journalists stayed with Abu Ali and his troops for many weeks and none of them realised his family was the most incredible family and the most amazing story,” he recalls.

“Sometimes news focuses too much on exciting pictures of ‘bang-bang’, but I think people have started to get sick of seeing so much fighting,” he argues. “If you are able to make an emotional story of one family, a microcosm where everybody can identify with them, the impact is so much stronger.”

It’s an approach that has met with opposition. “I was cutting a version for German TV and I had a lot of ‘bang bang’ footage… The producer said, ‘You have to put all this in’ and I said, ‘No. I’m doing war without showing war.’ He said that was like doing a film about football and not showing the ball. I said that was exactly what I wanted! War without showing war.”

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Children on the Frontline: The Escape is on Channel 4 tonight (Tuesday 10th May) at 10.00pm